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Clever rhetoric won’t save your undemocratic reform from failure: An open letter to Arne Duncan on the occasion of teacher appreciation week

Publication Date: 2011-05-03

This is from Countering Disinformation in Thinking about Education and Society, May 3, 2011. Do you wonder if maybe Arne Duncan has figured out yet that he should have kept his mouth shut about "appreciating" teachers?

Dear Secretary Duncan,

I am sure many have read your May 2, 2011 Open Letter to teachers. I am impressed with its rhetorical slight of hand, how it gently yet forcefully pushes -- with all apparent conviction -- what more and more of the research community and the public is rejecting.

I presume that it is this broad and growing opposition to Race to the Top (the nearly $5 billion in discretionary monies given to the U.S. Department of Education by the American Recovery and Reinvestment Act) that caused you to publish your Open Letter. But I do not believe that your rhetoric, however clever, can erase from consciousness the fact that Race to the Top is anti-democratic -- imposed through bribery using taxpayer money. It is an open agenda for privatization and the elimination of any last vestiges of democratic governance of and purpose for schooling. Wall Street and various monopolies are attempting total control through for-profit charters, anti-worker legislation, publishing and testing companies, private foundations, and of course, a national curriculum and privately managed testing regime aimed at workers compliance.

Given this reality, I think it is very important to examine how your letter makes its case. And while others have spoken to what is wrong with what you say, and what is wrong with what you propose, I want to focus on something that might be missed, possibly even by you: your letter's appeal to your personal convictions and beliefs as a basis for legitimating government action.

Your letter constitutes a public sharing of your personal conviction about teaching and the teaching profession. The theory of action appears to be this: teachers believe that you are ill-willed, and have wrong-headed ideas about education. To counter, you are disclosing yourself, and we educators are to be comforted by your stated respect for teachers, and your commitment to fair evaluation systems that you believe will raise the prestige of the profession. You confess, for example, to believing that teachers actually work hard (Well, now, you must be an ally!). And you suggest, although you never really openly say so, that you oppose teaching to the test and the narrowing of curriculum that follows. I should expose the trickery in pretending to address concerns with a curriculum narrowed only to tested subjects with a plan for more frequent testing in all subjects (that is, a national curriculum and series of tests developed by CEOs of corporations, private foundations and publishing and testing companies, with no role for the public). But this is not what I find most striking.

What I find most striking is how you position your personal beliefs and experiences as criteria for the legitimacy of government action. To quote a former president of the United States, you are "the decider," and you decide based on your beliefs. We the subjects are called upon to accept government action on account of the public expression of your beliefs.

For example, you state: "I have a deep and genuine appreciation for the work you do." Are the completely invalid pay-per-test-score schemes being imposed in state after state as a result of your Race to the Top competition (referenced in your letter as "sophisticated assessments that measure individual student growth") somehow now acceptable because the Holy Education Executive has uttered his genuine appreciation for the work teachers do?

Does the fact that you believe "that most teachers did not enter the profession for the money" justify pay and healthcare cuts, layoffs and terminations for those whose students don't show enough growth on the "sophisticated assessments" you believe in? After all, you believe the key to reform is building "an accountability system based on data we trust" --so as long as the "data" are trustworthy test hell for parents, students and educators is acceptable? If we don't go along with "in data we trust" will Senator McCarthy rise from the dead to demand our testimony? ("Mr. Garrison, are you, or have you ever been, or have you ever been associated with, a critic of standardized testing and merit pay for teachers?")

Equally impressive is how you position yourself as the great leader who has these personal relationships with people -- "I am here to help," you offer (if it were that simple, we could just respond, "thanks, but no thanks!"). You assert, as if it is a settled matter: "We understand that the surest way to [help America's children] is to make sure that the 3.2 million teachers in America's classrooms are the very best they can be." This master lie deserves its own book, but the fact of the matter is the majority of people in America understand that poverty is a very serious and rapidly growing problem. But poverty is brazenly ignored by you and most education reformers. If you want to "help America's children," eliminate poverty (and I guarantee the test scores will go up too, without any test prep!).

Like the Royal Wedding which celebrated the grossest forms of inequality, you're governing strategy is reminiscent of a period of history humanity has fought hard to leave behind: the despotic rule of kings and their royal families. During those times, the beliefs of royalty were all that mattered, and royalty were the only public officially recognized.

So, Mr. Duncan, at the end of the day, I don't care what you believe. In a democracy, the government must represent the will of the people, not impose its beliefs on them. No one wants a patronizing government that figures its role as "helping." Any reform that disempowers, any reform that doesn't help realize social equality, will fail, as the corporate reforms you defend in your letter already have.

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